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Meet David Cohen of Doc Wayne Youth Services

Today we’d like to introduce you to David Cohen.

David, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I had always wanted to find a way to give back, help others and get involved in my community, but life can get busy and time passes by. In 2008, I was at a crossroads in my career and finally decided to take a step forward. I saw an opportunity and founded Playing It Forward, a non-profit that provides sports equipment to underserved youth around the world. Since its inception, we have reached youth in over 20 countries.

Then, in 2011, I met the Founder of Doc Wayne and from the base she developed with a team working with at-risk youth, saw a real opportunity to build upon this initial work and have significant impact on youth in the region. I knew little about complex trauma and mental health and the challenges many young people face on a daily basis within our communities. I was coming from the for-profit sector, and there was risk in jumping at this opportunity, but I saw the possibilities and the connection with my skill set, along with my passion for sport and since joining Doc Wayne, have not looked back. As the Chief Executive Officer of this growing organization, I have received individual recognition and in 2012 was the Major League Soccer (MLS W.O.R.K.S.) New England Community MVP, then in 2015 was selected as a Carmax ‘Bright Side of Game Day’ Community Hero.

But in 2016, my life changed forever when I was diagnosed with Testicular cancer. The motivation to live life to its fullest and live in every moment became even that much more relevant. I learned to appreciate all of those around me and those who have supported me along the way. However, it also became even more apparent how fortunate I have been to have the support system that surrounds me. For many of the youth we serve at Doc Wayne, such a network of positivity may not exist, and our goal is to alter this path and provide youth with strong, caring, and passionate adults. Through my own personal battle, I aim to make sure I do not waste any time and along the way, do what I can to impact the lives of as many youths as possible so that they too can find their positive path in life.

Has it been a smooth road?
Just like any business, it has not been smooth sailing and there are always obstacles.

What we initially had was a sports program for youth (mainly under State care) who were victims of complex trauma and struggling with mental health challenges. We have come a long way since then and actually are now a mobile outpatient mental health clinical service that happens to use sport as the vehicle to connect with youth, especially students within our public schools. We are challenging the norm of traditional talk therapy, through the power of sport and altering the perception of a clinician by making them a coach. The youth then see members of our team in a different light and conversations can often be more engaging and open.

Seed money can only go so far and we had to find a way to grow and support our team so it took quite some time to secure the financial resources to make this happen, though you never have enough but you find a way to make things happen. Many initial conversations were challenging as mental health and complex trauma are heavy and often uncomfortable to many. It took some patience, some local recognition for our work and new conversations to begin the process of putting us on the map and becoming a valuable resource to students in the region. Four years ago, we started our first Chalk Talk sports-based group therapy session in South Boston. Word spread, and the calls starting coming at a rapid pace. We had a relatively small budget but had to find our way to meet this demand and though we still have a wait list of potential partners, we now are working in over 20 sites (mainly public schools) and serving approximately 300 students a week.

There is a tremendous need for culturally-specific mental health services for youth. The youth we serve through Chalk Talk are drawn from public schools, housing developments and after school programs in Boston and other eastern Massachusetts communities. They struggle with traumatic life experiences, mental illness and the knowledge that very little is expected of them by anyone. One in five children under age 19 suffers from a mental illness that impairs how they function at home, at school and with peers, but it is estimated that only 20-34% receive treatment. While Massachusetts has the nation’s highest rates of children screened for behavioral health issues, the Boston Globe (2013) reported that many of them were not receiving appropriate treatment. Obstacles included stigma, transportation, language barriers and reluctance to engage in treatment.

But with Chalk Talk, we can deliver a highly engaging and effective program where these young people live and go to school.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Doc Wayne Youth Services – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
Doc Wayne’s mission is to fuse sport and therapy to heal and strengthen at-risk youth.

We work primarily with youth ages 5-18 who suffer from a variety of mental health challenges, or are victims of complex trauma. The students we work with come from all around Boston. Neighborhoods include: Dorchester, Allston, Brighton, Mission Hill, Charlestown, South Boston, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Mattapan. Youth who fail to progress in traditional “talk therapy” settings thrive in our programs because the programs appeal to young people as fun and challenging sports activities. Chalk Talk is a unique sports-based group therapy model that enables youth to work towards treatment goals in an environment in which they feel comfortable participating. Each week, Chalk Talk reaches youth in schools, housing developments, and after-school programs.

We are a small organization, but winning growing recognition for the impact of our work with at-risk youth. In 2014, we were selected by the Social Innovation Forum as a Social Innovator in the “Mental Health” category. In 2015, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation named us the winner of its national Sports Award in the “Influential Leader” category, noting that our “engaging, high quality, evidence-based mental health interventions are transforming lives.” In 2016, we won a global Sport for Health Award, at the Beyond Sport summit in London and were also the recipients of the Margaret Stewart Lindsay Trust Inspiration Award.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
Boston is a vibrant city that is full of organizations doing incredible work to better our community. We have created a culture of hard work and innovation, which continually pushes organizations and leaders to find new and better ways to help others. It is because of this that Doc Wayne and other organizations can thrive and challenge the norm. However, one negative of this is that increased competition creates silos and can divide organizations. We need to find ways to better work and collaborate together in order to make a true and lasting impact.

Contact Info:

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 19: Beyond Sport Awards 2016 at Here East Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on October 19, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images)

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